Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Horse - grass eating herbivore or meat-eating monster?

Every night, I pull information on horses, horse welfare, the equestrian world. Usually the links are specific, related to articles, facts, research. Tonight, my eyes caught the headline "The Ponies of the South Pole: The Forgotten Story of Antarctica's Meat Eating Horses."
I have long subscribed to the belief that horses are prey animals, herbivores. Their teeth include 12 incisors in the front, ideal for biting and tearing grass and other vegetation. They have 24 premolars and molars at the back of their mouth, which help them chew to break down the grass and other vegetation. I work with horses in a therapeutic riding environment, and know them to be sensitive, compassionate, caring animals. I am keenly aware of the sensitive nature of their digestive tracts. And, while I have certainly experienced my share of aggressive equine behaviour, I have always attributed this to nurture, a need to communicate dissatisfaction, stress, anxiety, pain, anger. The concept of the horse as flesh-eating monster was always firmly entrenched in the realm of myth, told in stories like the Mares of Diomedes and the Man-Eater of Lucknow.
Intrigued, I began to read. The article, written by the founder of the Long Riders' Guild, CulChullaine O'Reilly, pulls together a fascinating array of stories and evidence to support the theory that horses can indeed be the flesh-eating animals of myth. Evidence that includes details of Shackleton’s expedition to the South Pole, of the blood-eating horses of Tibet.
What if the myths were grounded in fact?
O'Reilly has spent more than 30 years studying equestrian travel techniques. He has experienced the world in a way which I certainly have not, and he has seen and participated in events and activities that are likely beyond my sheltered understanding. He is the founder of the Long Riders Guild Academic Foundation, dedicated to the creating the world's first comprehensive hippological study. The Foundation's goals are:
  • To maintain the world’s first open-source academic website devoted to the study of all aspects of hippological influence in the arts and sciences.
  • To invite the participation of all humans, regardless of race, national origin or native language to share their horse-related wisdom with others.
  • To provide a forum, free of commercial influence, wherein equine-related articles are provided free to scholars, students and equine enthusiasts.
  • To publish every major work known to man dealing with equestrian wisdom and history.

His book, Deadly Equines, purposes to debunk the idea of flesh-eating horse as myth, and explores the possible reality that our 21st century understanding of the horse is two-dimensional at best, a sanitized and Disney-esque view that prevents us from understanding the true nature of the horse.
The website for the Long Riders Guild Academic Foundation (http://lrgaf.org) is a fantastic compilation of stories, news and articles about the horses. Horses in history, int the military, and today. I realize, reading through it, that my belief that horses are herbivores is based on the physiology of the horse as I understand it. And I am intrigued as to why some horses would be flesh-eating (man-eating!) while most remain true to the animal of prey who uses flight to escape danger.
I remain committed to the belief that horses heal, and the the relationship between man and horse is mutual, inspiring, positive and whole. But, I am reminded of Robert Sullivan’s “The Flight of the Reindeer - the True Story of Santa Claus and his Mission”.  As with Sullivan’s book, I find that the website, the articles, take me to a place where I am willing to suspend disbelief. Nothing will shake my firm belief in the horse as friend, companion and ally, and I do not find it distressing that horses may be, or have been at some point, carnivores. After all, dogs certainly are, and the relationshihp between man and dog has not suffered because of this. I find I want to read the book. And the rebuttals. CulChullaine O’Reilly has opened up for debate a subject that will likely be discussed for some time, in the face of real or supposed evidence on both sides. The “myth” of the horse as herbivore is firmly entrenched in Western thought, and it will be interesting to see what comes of the Foundation’s researches.
To read more about CulChullaine O’Reilly’s work, check out:

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